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Thursday, 27 June 2013
Page: 4365

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (19:26): I want to thank Senator Siewert for her contribution to this debate on the charities legislation tonight, because she has gone to the core—the nub—of this issue. And I want to reassure Senator Fifield that, rather than placing an onerous regulatory burden on our charities and not-for-profit sector, these bills before us tonight are going to enhance the capacity of those organisations that are going to be engaged so intimately in the DisabilityCare Australia process. They are actually going to relieve them of many burdens.

I am speaking this evening because I want to acknowledge the long history this suite of bills has had in this place and in previous parliaments—and Senator Fifield perhaps was working in the former Treasurer's office when the first discussions about this occurred. But of course it goes back even further than that, to the Industry Commission report in the 1990s. Many, many people have been involved, and I really want to thank everyone who has been committed to persisting in working to achieve an independent regulator for Australia's charities and not-for-profit sector. Everyone says the seminal document really is the Productivity Commission's report of 2010, which laid out the blueprint for change and reform that had to happen in the sector to modernise the sector and to ensure its long-term sustainability. That report created the snapshot that the sector contributes more than $40 billion a year to GDP, more than 600,000 organisations and more than one million staff—and that is the quantifiable contribution—but that the real value of the sector is often the unattributed contribution to the quality of life that we all experience in Australia.

I would like to place on the record the important work of the Community Council for Australia. In their submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services inquiry into these bills they make this point—and this is the nub of why we need this suite of bills:

If an NFP wants to hire a local hall at a discounted charitable rate, gain a concession on local rates charges, achieve a reduction in payroll tax, put forward a submission for funding, participate in a government tender process, register a fundraising activity or seek to claim a concession of any kind, the organisation must be able to produce some kind of bona fides, a kind of organisational passport. At present no such document exists. Charities are forced to provide copies of letters from the Australian Taxation Office that define their eligibility for taxation concessions as proof of their charitable status. This situation has proven to be very problematic, costly and counterproductive.

That is it, in a nutshell. What is being achieved through these bills is the establishment of an independent regulator. And I want to commend the work of the ACNC task force and the first ACNC commissioner, Susan Pascoe, and her team. They have done the most amazing job in working through the mechanics of how the ACNC will operate as a light-touch regulator and as an enabler of our charities and not-for-profits. Their work through the last six months has been extraordinary, and I would really like to congratulate the staff and the commissioners for their efforts.

The passport will be extraordinary. The consequences in savings in time, energy and resources will be amazing, and there will be flow-on reductions to red tape rather than any sense of a regulatory burden. Duplication and compliance costs will be reduced and they will translate into better frontline services for our communities.

In the six months the ACNC has been operating, the ACNC team has actually taken over 11,000 phone calls, received over 17,000 email requests for information and had face to face consultations with over 1,000 not-for-profits in workshops and presentations across the country. At the same time, more than 250 new charities have been registered on the new website, more than 10 new guides and fact sheets have been prepared and been released and the ACNC has received over 150 complaints about charities, resolved mostly through various forms of mediation. Not one charity has been deregistered, because that is not what the ACNC is taking as its first line. Its first line of approach is to mediate and resolve and remediate by educating and enabling the organisations.

So we have a very effective ACNC in place, and I really do call on the opposition to reconsider their objections to the ACNC and to these bills. The shadow spokesman has already indicated to the sector that it is his intention to wind back the ACNC, to actually reverse the progress that has been made in this important space. So I really do call on the opposition to reconsider that position.

I would like the acknowledge the work of the Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury and his staff, Minister Butler and his staff and the many groups and organisation who have worked so hard to advise the ACNC advisory council and bring common sense to the debate.

This package of bills is being lauded around the world as the most progressive and substantive not-for-profit governance package of bills, a best practice model for other jurisdictions. They deserve our support.